Search for the just and the reasonable is not a beauty pageant

Canada's public institution boards may not be democracy in action, but ultimately they’re obliged to heed the public and their political masters

In the wake of the latest twist in the fight for lower mobile phone rates, there were cries last week for more democracy within Canada’s public institutions.

But here’s the deal: no matter how hard you close your eyes, clench your fists, squeeze your knees together and wish it were so, there is little if anything democratic about Canada’s public institutions. They simply aren’t constructed that way.

Most have boards that allow their directors to bring a variety of perspectives to strategic and occasionally tactical decisions. Others, such as refugee appeal and parole boards, are comprised of panels of appointees who hear the particulars of cases and then decide. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), whose decision last week regarding the small cellular provider Sugar Mobile prompted this debate, calls for evidence, hears it, analyzes it, questions it, gets advice from staff and then makes a decision based on a vote by commissioners.

Those people, who are appointed by cabinet, are the only ones who get to decide. It doesn’t matter how many people within the public wanted a better outcome for Sugar Mobile anymore than it would matter how many people thought Jian Ghomeshi was guilty. The strength of the arguments put forward and the particulars of each case are all that matters and, because each of us possesses a worldview forged from different experiences, the system is designed to have decisions made by a group lest any one individual’s bias overwhelms the evidence.

Because the decision-makers are appointed by democratically-elected governments, they certainly exist within a democratic framework. Should their decisions be contentious –and many are – there are numerous checks and balances available, ranging from internal processes for reviews to appeals to cabinet itself to appeals to the courts. There’s no appeal to public sentiment. The search for the just and the reasonable is not a beauty pageant.

Should the public be outraged, however, it’s never without a voice, as has been displayed in the past and will be in the future. The most famous of these cases was the usage-based billing (UBB) fiasco, in which a decision was latched onto by a then barely-known group called OpenMedia, whose viral campaign flooded the prime Minister’s office and others with 300,000 emails – still considered the all-time record. (If you want to know what was actually wrong with UBB and are geeky enough, dig up the dissent that was attached to it.)

Within days, MPs from every party were rising to express their profound concern even though most were obviously a little under nourished on the particulars. To make a long story short, the government asked the CRTC to take another look. It did so just as undemocratically as it did the first time, tweaked it along the lines of the original dissent and there was peace again in the Ottawa Valley.

OpenMedia, meanwhile, became a thing. Whether that was the genesis of the idea that CRTC decisions could or should be determined by grassroots populism, I don’t know. But the real measure of whether it or other public institutions are functioning democratically should rest, as it does throughout society, in whether those empowered to speak and vote feel they can do so freely and without fear of reprisal.

When I arrived at the CRTC in 2007, one of my first questions was: “What do I have to think?” The answer was: “Whatever you want – but you have to have reasons.”

Having been released from the corporate world the previous year, this was the most wonderful thing I had heard in years.

Chairman Konrad von Finckenstein was an imposing figure who could make his points forcefully and, like all people in those positions, wasn’t always popular. But he was determined to be democratic and not only tolerated and respected dissenting views, he liked that they showed free and open debate was flourishing.

Later, that changed. But those stories are best left for another day.

Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher who spent 10 years as a CRTC commissioner and vice-chair.


crtc public institutions, sugar mobile

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